memories of the little pink house
Tuesday April 6, 2010 (my computer has been attacked by a virus, so these posts are old ones.
The Navajo have a tradition of greeting the sun as it rises. From the years I lived in Rock Springs with Louie, I got used to seeing the sun come up. When you don’t have electricity you tend to live by natural rhythms of light and dark rather than the artificial ones permitted by electricity. When we lived in our little pink house the front door and windows faced the east. The rising sun awakened us as soon as it was high enough to shine in the window. Louie was the first one out of bed. He went out to the build up the fire in our little round stove and in no time at all the little house was warm.
Whether it was winter or summer, as long as it was not actually blowing rain or snow into the house the door was open. Our little stove was directly opposite it with about six feet to walk around into the house. Louie even built a gate to put across it so that Notah in his walker could not propel himself out the door. Today in New Mexico, I still feel confined when the door is not open. And I open windows, drapes and blinds to allow the sun and wind into the house. Even now as I sit here the window beside me is open with the drapes and blind blowing in the cold wind. I would rather have the cold than the dark dismals.
During those years I lived next door to nihi’ma (Louie’s mother) we lived as much out of doors as we did inside. I loved it and I miss it. We would have breakfast at our house and during the week, Louie would leave for work. I would clean our little house and then Notah and I would go outside to play or over to Mom’s house to visit. Or some of Dorothy’s kids would come down to visit us. Usually it was Ethel. We played and chatted until time for Notah’s nap.
When Ethel went back home, Notah and I would have a little lunch then he would be laid down in his crib to sleep while I laid on the bed and read. We didn’t have easy chairs or sofa so if you were going to be comfortable you either laid on the bed or sat at the table. It was more comfortable lying on the bed until Notah fell asleep. If he couldn’t see me, he assumed I was not paying attention and rather than sleep he would try to climb out of bed to do his own thing. I would read on the bed until he fell asleep then I could get up and do my own thing.
In the summer it was uncomfortable to cook in the house. Breakfast was easy because it was still very cool and the warmth of cooking coffee and frying potatoes or bacon made the house cozy. But when it was time for supper, the little house was already warm from the heat of the day and to add additional heat was stifling. This is when we would move to our little cook fire outside. I’ve talked before, I believe, about how to make a small hot fire to cook over.
We had a little fire pit just out from the house about 20 feet from the corner and a little further from the door. To day, just thinking about squatting or bending down to cook over it makes my knees hurt and I could not do it. Then it was a simple matter to make a meal there. Louie would bring out a stool and a board to place over the seat and I would fix what ever we were having and cook it over that little fire. I usually tried to make it a one skillet or one pot meal, but even a vegetable could be heated in the opened can on the corner of the grill. It was a simple matter to stir seasonings into the can before I set it over the fire. Coffee always cooked on a small bed of ashes to one side.
We would have supper, sitting by the fire while we ate. Depending on who all was eating with us, all sorts of things were pressed into service for ‘tables’. Lots of time it was simply a stool or big can with a piece of wood or a large barrel lid laid on top. It only served for the moment and then was returned to stand leaning against the corner of the house or behind the door inside or to whatever its usual purpose was.
While we ate we had a kettle or small bucket sitting on the fire heating water. So by the time we finished, the water was hot. Lots of times Louie would bring the dish pans and the dish soap from the house for me and I rinsed the dishes off. We never left the plates with a lot of food smeared on them like white people do. That would have been bad manners. Everyone made it a practice to wipe the plates clean with a piece of bread and either eat it or toss it to the dogs. So the plates were never really messy. I put just a few cups of hot water in the little dish pan. I could wash the dishes in this and then rinse them by pouring a bit of clear hot water from the bucket over them. The hot water ran off into the dish pan and kept the water hot even though the quantities were small. By the time I got to the greasy pan, I sometimes had to dump the water from the dish pan back into the dirty pan and reheat it. Then I could scrub it and, of course, dump it and rinse it.
The outside of a pot or skillet that has been used to cook over an open fire is usually very black and soot covered. This is where the old statement about “the pot calling the kettle black” came from. Both are equally soot smeared and greasy. I always washed the outside of the pan separately. After I got the inside clean, I would take the skillet and a bucket or pan full of hot water off to the side away from the traffic area and using soap at first with very little water, scour the outside with a handful of sand. It was messy and made my hand black, but the combination of sand and dishwashing liquid easily removed the greasy soot. When it seemed to be all loosened I would pour hot water over the pan and my hand until the outside was clean. Then it was a simple matter of quickly rinsing the inside again and we were finished. If I simply stuck the pan in my dishwater the way we ordinarily do it would have made the inside of my dish pan ugly and black and blackened my dishcloth-probably beyond any effort to get it looking clean again. This method made my scouring hand black, but that came off with a good scrubbing, too.
Yes, today, it is much easier to cook on a range or even grill, then stick the dirty things in hot dishwater in the sink and scrub every thing. Or simply rinse them and put them in a dishwasher. But I miss that living outside, even with the extra work.
After everything was clean, Louie or I or both, would carry the clean dishes, etc, back inside. And then we continued sitting outside talking until bedtime as the fire burned down and down to cold embers. Sometimes we did the same thing at Mom’s house. We would all go over there and lots of times we had other family there too. And again, after supper and clean-up, we all sat around outside, talking while a battery powered radio with country music played in the background. I don’t remember what we talked about, nothing of any earth shattering importance, just time spent with each other. While the little kids played, all of us, adults, teenagers and older kids, all shared things from their day or told stories of things that had happened. No on told the kids to keep quiet or that something was none of their business. Everyone shared politely and adults extended the same courtesy to the kids that they demanded for themselves. There was no tv and the radio was low enough that it didn’t interfere with the conversation. I really think people miss out on a lot of sharing and bonding because we are so involved with television to distract us.
As the sun went down behind the house, either ours or Mom’s, we began to collect our things and the babies and headed inside. The teenagers would pick up the chairs and stools and milk crates and other things pressed into service as seats and carry them inside or put them wherever they belonged. I remember them often today as I listen to my grandkids have to be badgered into doing their chores. The Navajo kids never had to be even reminded, they just watched and grew up knowing that putting things away was part of living.
When the fire was out and everything was in its place we all trucked off inside. Oil lamps were lit long enough to allow quick baths or washing up. Notah usually got the most scrubbing up. He was closer to the ground and managed to get dirtier. When we were all clean, we left one lamp burning, turned down very low on a solid night stand or on the bureau—somewhere that it would be secure from accidental knocks. This was to provide light in case we had to get up with Notah during the night. It is nice sometimes at home now for the electricity to go off. Then we are forced to resort to oil lamps for a little while. It always brings back to me those cozy nights in our little house with Louie, Notah and I snuggled warm in the glow.